(Lander, WY) – The 2022 Legislative Session Preview Luncheon was held Friday, December 2 at the Lander Community Center, where Fremont County citizens got the opportunity to hear from and ask questions of our elected officials.
The Luncheon was hosted by Lander Chamber of Commerce Director Owen Sweeney, and put on by the Lander, Riverton, and Dubois Chambers of Commerce.
Now in its second year, the Preview Luncheon takes place ahead of the Wyoming Legislature 2023 General Session, which is scheduled to convene in Cheyenne on January 10, and gives folks the opportunity to hear from their state legislators on what legislative activity they have been addressing during the interim.
Speakers for the day included Senator Tim Salazar R (District 26), Representative Lloyd Larsen R (District 54), Representative Ember Oakley R (District 55), Representative Pepper Ottman R (District 34), and Representative-Elect Sarah Penn R (District 33), with Senator Cale Case declining to attend.
Legislators were each given a few minutes to discuss issues important to their districts, and then fielded questions from the sold-out crowd that included Fremont County residents, business owners, and even two groups of students from Lander and Riverton High Schools.
The first speaker was Senator Salazar, recently appointed to the Senate Appropriations Committee, who focused on the issue of divisiveness and “preconceived labels.”
“We are a divided country” that is currently “deficient in talking civilly,” Senator Salazar stated, adding that communication will be key for any future unity.
Representative Larsen was next to take the stage, letting an RHS student jump ahead a bit for the Q and A to ask what he thought was the most pressing matter before legislators at the moment.
Without hesitation, Representative Larsen replied “K-12 funding,” stating that we are in “an interesting situation this year,” due to the fact that “mineral revenue is not increasing.”
Representative Oakley followed, and spoke on the need for a thoughtful, collaborative legislature.
She also announced that she was officially appointed to the Revenue Committee moments before the Luncheon, and will also be serving on the Judiciary Committee as well.
Representative Ottman then took the stage, announcing her appointment to the Corporations, Elections & Political Subdivisions Committee, and also stressing the importance of focusing on labor and maternal health, behavioral health, and mental health.
Representative Ottman also brought up the state’s need to hire a full time, in-state forensic pathologist.
Representative-Elect Penn closed out the opening remarks, announcing her appointment to the Labor, Health & Social Services Committee, asking for “a little grace” in her feshman year as a Representative, and asserting that, “The people of Wyoming want a direction change.”
The floor was then opened to the public.
Questions ranged from more broad and general, to very specific, such as the first one of the afternoon asked by a former student from the Wyoming Challenge Academy, concerning the school’s abrupt closure.
Ultimately, staffing was the issue as to the Academy’s closure, with the National Guard’s flagship program now becoming a focus for Senator Salazar after he was assigned by the Appropriations Committee to guide the budget of the National Guard.
“I’m in a unique position to ask questions,” Senator Salazar went on to say before adding that General Porter and the National Guard were “sorely disappointed” as to its closure, and that he would “make a commitment” to look into it further.
Representative Ottman then fielded a follow-up question about the lack of a full-time in-state pathologist from a local funeral worker, commenting, “We’re looking at re-developing the Coroner’s Office here in Fremont County.”
Representative Ottman then stated that one of the questions that will need to be addressed is where an in-state pathologist would be situated geographically in the state that would be “most generally open to all the people.”
She also added that the need for this position is of special concern, because “police investigations are being held up” due to the backup in Loveland, CO where coroner cases are currently sent.
Commissioner Mike Jones was in attendance and spoke on the matter, adding that there is currently a County Commission task force looking at upgrading facilities, and a part of those discussions are potential accommodations for a Coroner’s facility for pathology.
Other questions focused on the “diversification of economy,” with Representative Larsen further commenting that diversification is difficult. “When these other industries come in and use our resources in the state, and are exempt from any sort of taxation, it’s hard to diversify the economy.”
“We need to look at what benefits the state. If there isn’t any, how do we rectify that?” Representative Larsen said of businesses that don’t generate revenue for that state, even ones that he supports like the nuclear facility in Kemmerer, and other wind and solar options.
“Should we have a generation tax” when those businesses are “displacing the traditional (coal) source of income?” Representative Larsen asked, adding that challenging conversations must be had.
“Figure that out for me, will you?” Representative Larsen then joked to the person who asked the question.
“Sometimes we just need to spend less money,” Representative-Elect Penn added.
“I can tell you my tax policy is I will not be voting for any tax raises in 2023,” Senator Salazar later added, commenting that for the makeup and demographics of his Senate District, any tax raises are going to “kill” the seniors, young families and Veterans.
Shoshoni Mayor Joel Highsmith was also in attendance, and asked about state funding for small town infrastructure.
Representative Larsen then shared that Governor Gordon reached out to him at the dedication of the Life Resource Center, asking that he tell Mayor Highsmith “Shoshoni got the short end of the stick, and we we have not forgotten them.”
“That’s the nice thing about Wyoming, the little town of Shoshoni did not get overlooked, it’s still on his mind,” Representative Larsen commented before adding that legislators and the Governor will look into using funds specifically for water and sewer infrastructure for smaller Wyoming municipalities.
When the question of education revenue was brought up again by an LVHS student, Representative Oakley referenced a Fremont County specific bill currently in front of the Revenue Committee, that will look into expanding gambling on state lands and having a percentage of that revenue going toward education.
Other questions ranged from medicaid expansion, the new Riverton Medical District hospital project, to outdoor recreation’s effect on the state economy, all spurring civil discussion among citizen and legislator alike.
The 2023 Wyoming Legislature General Session is set to convene in Cheyenne on January 10.